New York City born and raised, Naomi Ekperigin is quickly becoming an influential voice in modern comedy. She’s worked as a staff writer for Broad City and Difficult People, appeared on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell and Late Night with Seth Meyers, and was listed as one of “7 Reasons Why SNL Should Hire a Black Woman” on Buzzfeed and one of “8 Black Comediennes Who are Ready for SNL” by Essence Magazine. Tonight at midnight marks the premiere of Ekperigin’s Comedy Central Half Hour. I sat down with her before the Half Hour taping in New Orleans to discuss her early days in standup, the quest for more diversity in comedy, and the sedative power of biscuits.
You’ve toured through this part of the country before, right?
I did 10 shows in 12 days through the South. Doing standup in New York is a very lucky thing. You get used to a certain kind of audience. When you do shows in Manhattan or Brooklyn you know you’re going to get a certain type of crowd. I always get nervous, but also really excited about the times where I leave New York and kind of see, “Okay, what legs does this material have elsewhere?” It’s very good for the soul. A lot of my material is about being engaged to a Jewish man. You wonder, “Will the South love it?” And they loved it.
I can imagine certain rooms in the South where you’re working against two things. First, some people are still backwards about interracial relationships. Second, some people just don’t understand what Jews are.
You started standup in 2007, but at that point you weren’t going full steam because you still had a job and stuff.
Right. I first did standup in college. Very low stakes. I dipped my toe in, but it was nothing like when I went back to New York and decided I’m going to try a back room bar show. Then I didn’t understand how anybody became a comedian. For a little while it was just a hobby, but as I got more into the standup community I started to meet people who were working on the road and doing TV stuff. I started to see what the actual options were. That gave me a sense of what I could work towards and what I actually wanted for myself. I would say it was around 2009 that I told myself, “We’re going to do this. Take every show. Get up every single night, as much as possible.” I did theater, so it wasn’t about being on stage. It was more about now that I have their attention for 8 to 10 minutes, what am I going to say?
Do you feel that your theater experience helped your standup?
I did theater and I also did improv. I did college improv and then went to UCB for a few years after I graduated. What you get out of the improv part is getting up in front of a group of people with no idea about what you’re going to be saying. You at least get comfortable bombing. You get comfortable thinking on your feet. You learn to listen to the audience.
You’ve written on some pretty high-profile comedy shows recently like Broad City and Difficult People. Those shows are known for their unique voices and for having characters that do and say things that we don’t get to see on television that often. How have you incorporated your personality into the writing of those shows?
Broad City and Difficult People are based in New York and New York is a huge part of the shows. I was born and raised in New York City. With that through line I’m like, “Great, here are all the things we can play with.” Another thing, especially in the case of Difficult People, is that they have these opinions that may be shocking or mean. It can be really fun to tap into that part of yourself. In Difficult People they have very strong opinions about things that are very mundane, that you should not have very strong opinions about. I can definitely relate to that. A lot of my standup is informed by my emotional response to something. A lot of times the pleasure for the audience comes from me getting so riled up about something that is really fine to someone else. In the case of Broad City it’s about being a young twenty-something in New York. I know that world well. New York forces you to…you’re constantly surrounded by people, butting up against them, and everywhere you go everybody’s got their own agenda. It forces you to stand your ground and learn to speak your piece or else you’ll get rolled over.
You’ve been outspoken about not seeing enough diversity in comedy. This is an issue that has been on people’s radar more recently. How do you feel things are going?
I wish I could tell the future. If I knew that I would be in a different business. The one thing I have noticed, especially now that I’m on the business side a little bit, is that more people are actively seeking out people of color and diverse backgrounds to fill the writer’s rooms. That’s always a really good thing. The next step is going beyond the one or two writers in the room and really making it 50/50. The vibe and success of a good writer’s room is about all those people working together and everybody getting each other, vibing off of one another. If you have one person who was brought in to be that one voice, but everybody else in the room is like, “I don’t get it. I didn’t live that. That doesn’t resonate with me,” you may not end up seeing that voice on the page or on the screen. But what I hope to see in the next couple of years is more people of color and more women at the higher level. That will then trickle down into the staffing and shape of the show. Once that happens I think everyone will be happy. White people don’t have to worry about going away. They’ll still be on TV. They’ll still be making stuff.
You’ll be taping your Half Hour this evening. How are you going to prepare?
I’m going to have a single biscuit that will probably put me into a two hour nap, if we’re honest about it. Then I’m going to listen to a lot of Beyonce, get my energy up. I want to be by myself and get myself to a good place so that when I get on stage they’ll get all of it. I want to have a James Brown pass-out moment where somebody comes and brings me my robe. “Bring me my cape! I can’t take it!”